A U.S. district court judge ended the dispute over "On the Shore of the Seine," a stolen Renoir painting, on Friday, Jan. 10 when he awarded ownership of the painting to the Baltimore Museum of Art, from which the painting was stolen in 1951.
Marcia "Martha" Fuqua, a driving instructor in Loudoun County, Va., put the painting up for auction last year under the name "Renoir Girl," claiming that she bought the painting in 2008 or 2009 at a West Virginia flea market for $7. In court documents, the BMA contended that "Fuqua, even if a bona fide purchaser, cannot obtain good title to the painting because it was stolen" and U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema agreed, granting summary judgment to the BMA.
Pierre-Auguste Renoir, the famous impressionist painter, is reported by the donor of the painting, Saidie A. May, to have executed "On the Shore of the Seine" for a mistress on a linen napkin at a Parisian restaurant in 1879. May, an avid art collector, wrote a letter in 1935 offering to lend the painting to the museum. The museum took possession of the painting in 1937 and exhibited it in 1950 and 1951. May died in May 1951 and willed the painting to the BMA. Then, according to court documents, "Sometime between 6 p.m. on the evening of November 16, 1951 and 1 p.m. on November 17, 1951, the Painting was stolen from the BMA."
The police report at the time described the painting as "1 Oil on canvas painting, Canvas size 5 1/2 X 9", painted by Pierre Auguste Renoir, Titled 'On the Shore of The Seine,' A River scene in pink and blue, weeds in green, in a Gild frame size 8 X 12" Val. $2500.00, Insured."
The Fireman's Fund Insurance company paid the museum for the painting, and it was not recovered until the FBI seized it from Fuqua in late 2012. In a letter to the FBI, Fuqua claimed that she was an "innocent owner" who did not know that the painting was stolen. She also claimed to have "merely a lay-person's understanding of art."
Later developments revealed, however, that Fuqua's mother, Marcia Fouquet, was in fact both an artist and an art educator in the Baltimore area at the time of the theft, and in a Nov. 14 deposition, Martha's brother, Matt Fuqua, said that his girlfriend found the painting while cleaning out his mother's studio in 2011. Other acquaintances told the Washington Post that they saw the painting in the family home.
Fuqua, who had amassed over $400,000 in debt, also according to the Post, argued that the BMA's motion for summary judgment "is supported by inadmissible hearsay, improperly authenticated documents, and conclusory, hearsay-filled supporting affidavits, the Motion must be denied and the parties should proceed to trial on the merits." Nicholas O'Donnell, writing for Art Law Report, summed up the position this claim put the BMA in as follows: "The painting was stolen in 1951, but how can the museum establish that fact? There are no live witnesses who came in one day and saw that the painting was missing. Anyone who knows about the painting's theft from someone else cannot testify to that, because it would be hearsay. So how can the museum establish the theft?"
Business records and police reports can, however, be admissible, and the court chose to allow the BMA's evidence. The other claimant, the insurance company, "stepped aside and said it should be given to us," Doreen Bolger, the museum's current director, told City Paper after the ruling. "I would like to say how grateful we are to the Fireman's Fund Insurance, and also to the family of Saidie May, who have been advocating for the return of the painting."
After Friday's ruling, Fuqua was reached by the Washington Post. When the paper first asked for her reaction, she responded "Reaction to what? I don't even know what the judge's ruling was."
Bolger, who celebrated her 65th birthday on the day of the ruling for summary judgment, was delighted.
"The museum takes its responsibility for stewardship and the care of the collections entrusted to us very seriously," she told City Paper. "Saidie May intended that to be part of the collection, and that it was stolen while on loan from her was very bad for us, we are thrilled now to have the opportunity to have the painting back and to have it in our care and have it here in Baltimore. It is like the prodigal son returning-it's overwhelming."
In absence of an appeal, the BMA plans on a "welcome home" installation for the painting in March.